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By Dave Umhoefer May 19, 2011

His own budget proposes some increases, according to nonpartisan fiscal bureau

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker"s core theme on the campaign trail in 2010 was a firm stance against any tax increases.

Walker and his opponent in the Republican primary, Mark Neumann,  emphatically said they would not raise any taxes, ever.

"I'm not looking for a cigarette tax, a liquor tax, you name it," Walker said.

And like hundreds of conservative candidates before him, Walker signed the Americans for Tax Reform"s "Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” promising to  "oppose and veto any and all efforts” to increase taxes.

In the general election, the pledge distinguished Walker from Democrat Tom Barrett, who made more limited tax-relief promises.

As forceful, sweeping campaign promises, they bore some similarity to President Barack Obama"s 2008 pledge that in his administration, "No family making less than $250,000 will see "any form of tax increase."

In April 2010, PolitiFact National graded that one a Promise Broken for, among other changes, an increase in the cigarette tax.

Walker"s controversial budget-repair bill, unveiled in February 2011, did not propose tax increases.

But what about his 2011-"13 budget?

It included some tax cuts, but also tax increases.

That"s according to the nonpartisan state Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which both parties have long cited as a neutral scorekeeper on budget matters.

The bureau determined that Walker included three tax increases in the budget totaling $49.4 million over the two-year period.

The largest involved a reduction in a state tax credit for low-income working families, known as the earned income credit. A tax credit reduces the amount of tax you owe.

In this case, the earned income tax credit is in place for both state and federal taxes. It"s refundable, so individuals with little or no income tax liability may still receive the credit.

Walker"s plan would decrease the tax credit for families with more than one child, allowing the state to collect an additional $41.3 million in taxes over two years from those families. (The credit would actually go up for families with just one child.)

A second tax increase, the fiscal bureau said, is stopping the inflationary adjustment of the state"s Homestead Tax Credit -- the property tax break that appears as a credit on income tax forms for low-income homeowners and renters. The bureau calculated that change would increase taxes by an estimated $8.1 million.

Walker has disputed the characterization of the tax-credit change as a tax increase, with spokesman Cullen Werwie telling us: "Decreasing a tax credit is reducing spending, not increasing taxes.”

We asked Robert Lang, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau director, why he categorized it as a tax increase.

He said the judgment was based on longstanding guidelines. The tax credit is based on income and it can come in the form of an income tax refund, Lang said.

We asked two others who follow tax issues closely about the credit.

Like Lang, both said it amounted to a tax increase.

"If I had only two choices -- tax increase or not -- I would say it is a tax increase,” said Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, a nonpartisan research organization funded by business, foundations, governments, individuals and subscriptions to its publications.

Jon Peacock, who studies tax issues as research director of the liberal Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, a liberal nonpartisan advocacy organization, noted that even if workers don"t have a tax bill, the credit was intended to offset the Social Security taxes that those workers pay.

The fiscal bureau confirms that was one intent of the credit.

Werwie also argues that there is a net tax decrease in the budget, so the change to the earned income credit should not be considered as an increase that violates the pledge.

The fiscal bureau has scored the budget out as having a net tax decrease of $33.9 million, mostly due to tax breaks for certain corporations and investors. In contrast, the last budget from Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle -- Walker"s predecessor -- proposed a $1.6 billion net increase in taxes.

To be sure, the authors of the pledge Walker signed say his budget does not violate the pledge, precisely because the increases are more than offset by reductions. The group, Americans for Tax Reform, considers the net tax impact of a single piece of legislation, so reductions can offset increases for a net drop.

But Walker"s anti-tax claims went beyond that pledge; he made clear during the campaign that he opposed any tax increases. He did not speak of measuring his promise only by the net effect.

In addition, Walker has a record of strongly opposing tax reform deals that raise one tax and cut another. As Milwaukee County executive, for instance, he opposed a sales tax increase that supporters claimed would allow property taxes to be lowered.

And in November 2010, shortly after his election, he shot down the notion of a sales tax increase that would be offset by lowering other taxes.

"Governor-elect Walker is going to tackle Wisconsin's budget deficit by cutting spending,” Werwie said in a statement at the time. "He will not raise taxes, whether that is the income tax, sales tax or corporate tax."

(On May 19, 2011, Walker quickly came out against a business leader"s suggestion to consider an extension of the sales tax for Miller Park to upgrade or replace the Bradley Center.)

But in balancing his budget to tackle the deficit, Walker in effect used the income tax-credit reductions as revenue raisers to partially offset the deficit-enlarging cost of his tax cuts.

Here is the promise: To "oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes."

Walker"s budget is pending in the Legislature, so we don"t know how he will use his veto power on tax issues.

As for the part about opposing any increases, in his budget Walker not only isn"t opposing them -- he"s the one who did the proposing.

That merits a Promise Broken.

Our Sources

Americans for Tax Reform, website

Legislative Fiscal Bureau, report on tax and fee increases, April 15, 2011

Americans for Tax Reform, Taxpayer Protection Pledge

E-mail interview with Cullen Werwie, Scott Walker spokesperson, April 29, 2011

Email interview with Todd Berry, president, Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, April 25, 2011

Email interview with Jon Peacock, research director, Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, April 25, 2011

Interviews with Robert Lang, director, Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, April 21-26

Interview with Josh Culling, state affairs manager, Americans for Tax Reform, May 9, 2011

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